Great care and thought goes into naming a vehicle—in most cases.
There's usually some sort of rationale for selecting a certain word, or combination of words, and the imagery and/or tradition it projects.
Same for alphanumeric names: not only do they generally have historical significance, they often also help to position the vehicle within the hierarchy of an automaker’s line-up.
But in some cases, care and thought have been absent, with predictable results.
Lost in Translation
The most egregious screw-ups have occurred when names have had unintended meanings in other languages.
(Ford), and Ascona
(Opel). In another language, they mean either a sexual act, a part of the body used in a sexual act, or a
Mid and lower-level cars often stay away from alphanumerical formats; the thinking being that these vehicles need personality
sex-related professional (and by that, we don't mean a medical professional). We'll let you guess which ones are which.
But translation miscues are not restricted to sexual genres. Consider the Rolls Royce Silver Mist — in German, “mist” kind of sounds like dung. Or how about the Toyota MR2? When French people say “M” then “R” then “deux” it all melds together to sound something like “merde,” a French swear word that could also mean dung, but is more often used to denote the human equivalent. In France and Belgium, Toyota sold the car as the MR.
The Japanese have a particular gift for giving us memorable names, especially when they feel the need to “Westernize” various home-market vehicles. Witness Honda Life Dunk, Daihatsu Naked, Mazda Bongo, and Isuzu GIGA Light Dump.
The founding fathers and their car companies
- Herbert AUSTIN
- Walter Owen BENTLEY
- Karl BENZ
- Ettore BUGATTI
- Louis CHEVROLET
- Walter Percy CHRYSLER
- Andre CITRÖEN
- Goltlieb DAIMLER
- John and Horace DODGE
- Frederick DUESENBERG
- Enzo FERRARI
- Henry FORD
- William MORRIS
- Charles NASH
- Armand PEUGEOT
- Ferdinand PORSCHE
- Louis RENAULT
- Henry ROYCE
- Charles Stuart ROLLS
- Francis STANLEY
- Harry STUTZ
Other vehicle names are suspect in their first language.
The Ford Probe was actually not a bad car, and the word probe in itself is not bad, I guess. But didn’t anybody at Ford realize that most people think of a particular type of probe, and not a car?
Lost to Time
We have less questionable names around these days, because one learns from mistakes, and because these days focus groups also weigh in on potential monikers.
But this also means we’ve lost some of the cool quirkiness that characterized names in the first half-century of the automobile.
How can you not dig names like Hupmobile (1908-1940), Tudhope (1906-1913), and Morris & Salom Electrobat (1885-1897)?
American and Italian names are best
Americans have a knack of coming up with great car names, and their best ones seem to embody American brashness — Barracuda, Charger, Mustang, Toronado, Marauder, etc.
One of my all-time favourite brand and model name combinations is Pontiac Strato Chief, which manages to tie in Native American culture with heady post-war modernism.
Many of you are probably aware of the unique history of the word Jeep. The vehicle was first called General Purpose Vehicle by the military, which the soldiers first short formed to G.P., and then simply to Jeep.
But Italians get the prize in my books for great car names, often without trying. It’s almost unfair. Maserati Quattroporte and Stanguellini Berlinetta sound awesome and sexy, but really all they’ve done is stick a generic descriptor to an Italian surname. Quattroporte means "four doors" and Berlintta is a generic term for sporty little coupe. The Anglo equivalent of the Maser might be the Farley Four Door. Some things just don't translate...
Names, and Descriptors Too
The best names, however, are ones that sound good but also accurately describe the vehicle. Beetle and Mini are good examples. These sound like fun, small cars, which they are… By contrast, if someone were to name a small car the Chihuahua Le Grande Brougham, it would be both dishonest and confusing.
Through the years, the auto industry has developed and used generic descriptive terms to identify certain body styles. Some have obviously fallen out of fashion, but many still endure, and can form all or part of a vehicle name.
The names of fancy schmancy cities and wild and wooly frontiers often find themselves affixed to vehicle counterparts — Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Cadillac Seville, GMC Sierra, Dodge Daytona, Chrysler Sebring, etc.
Where are the Canadian place names you might ask? Well there are at least four: the current GMC Acadia, the Galt Gas Electric (1914), the Alfa Romeo Montreal (1970-77), and the Moose Jaw Standard (1917).
If you haven’t heard of the latter don’t beat yourself up about it. Here’s the entry for it in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Automobiles: “Five local residents bought enough parts from the USA to build 25 (Lincoln) Continental-engined luxury cars, but gave up after they each had a car because they could not find buyers for the rest.”
The Present Alphanumeric Era
You’ve surely noticed that more and more vehicles today are being named in alphanumeric formats: Mazda2, Audi A5, Cadillac CTS-V, Volvo S80, Acura ZDX, Scion iQ, etc.
You can probably thank, or blame, BMW and Mercedes-Benz for this trend. By sticking to alphanumeric names, they’ve been better able to raise the profile of the entire “brand,” instead of just one or two of their better-known models — it’s become the template for success in the luxury segments.
Lincoln has bought in, but such a hurried approach with its trio of all-new vehicles, has brought mixed results. At this stage at least, MKX, MKT, and MKS seem more like alphabet soup, than compelling names.
Mid and lower level cars often stay away from alphanumerical formats; the thinking being, that these cars need personality, which can be can be furthered by a good handle. Top sellers like Corolla, Civic, Camry, Accord, Accent and Sonata all seem to have average-sounding names, proving that sometimes it’s not the name the makes the man, but the man that makes the name.
If only that were the case for the Pontiac Aztek.